Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Degree Granting Department
Joanne B. Waugh, Ph.D.
Joshua Rayman, Ph.D.
Michael Morris, Ph.D.
Mor Segev, Ph.D.
Justice, Dialectic, Plato, Soul
This dissertation is a study of the intellectual practice of the Platonic character, Socrates, with emphasis on the presentation of dialectical engagement with authority. I argue that authority, conceptually and in practice, constitutes a serious problem for Socrates. On my reading, the problems of authority are indicative of an inappropriate understanding of the soul and the ailing condition of the sociopolitical practices of Athenian culture. I suggest that Plato’s Socrates is devoted to the personal and political improvement of his fellow citizens, and society at large, through dialectical engagement which seeks to undermine authority. I investigate Plato’s characterization of the Socratic practice of philosophy, taking seriously his frequent claims to ignorance and his reluctance to commit to clearly positive doctrine. I suggest that these problems can be collapsed into an analysis of the question of authority, and that the questioning of authority constitutes a positive force in dialectical practice. I attempt to develop an interpretive strategy of Plato’s work that commits us to neither wholly dogmatic nor wholly skeptical readings of Plato.
There is an apparent dichotomy in the scholarship suggesting that Plato’s dialogues must be understood as either constructive (offering positive doctrine) on the one hand, or aporetic (purely refutational) on the other. In my reading, I lean closer to an aporetic interpretation; however, I attempt to show that Socrates is presented as anti-doctrinal because a hard commitment to doctrine establishes the conditions for aporia. I maintain that Socrates’ antiauthoritarian characterization is evidence of his dedication to the continued pursuit of wisdom. True knowledge would be ideal, but knowing nothing is preferable to false-positives. While I develop a picture of an antiauthoritarian Socrates within the nonauthoritative genre of Plato’s dialogues, I hope to retain the view that the Socratic pursuit of wisdom is aspirational. Through the discussion of the select dialogues in this dissertation, I hope to show that a Socratic progress towards knowledge requires a dedicated questioning of authority.
In my reading I give special attention to the historical context in which Plato writes, and this includes the choices Plato makes in presenting the character of Socrates. I attend to questions of time and place in the narrative, the historical persons presented as dramatis personae, and the potential reception by the immediate audience. I take the position that the dialogue form itself is a challenge to authority, and that the format of a written dialogue is underscored by checks to authoritative grounding. Those who engage in dialogue, and those who write dialogues, enter into an agreement to challenge authority—and to enter into this agreement in good faith, one ought to be willing to suspend one’s own claims to authority.
In my discussion of Plato’s choice to develop a characterization of Socrates at odds with the problems of authority, I hope to open the possibility that my reading identifies important consequences for understanding certain philosophical commitments expressed in the Socratic dialogues. My hope is that I have presented a reading of a selection of dialogues that draws out an image of an antiauthoritarian Socrates, and in so doing sketched a framework that might tentatively contribute some insightful, if nuanced, perspective to Platonic scholarship.
Scholar Commons Citation
Dutton, Simon, "This, or Something like It: Socrates and the Problem of Authority" (2020). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.